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The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer Paperback – October 1, 2002

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (October 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142001449
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142001448
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.1 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,320,300 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

What a difference a century makes. Doron Swade, technology historian and assistant director of London's Science Museum, investigates the troubles that plagued 19th-century knowledge engineers in The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer.

The author is in a unique position to appreciate the technical difficulties of the time, as he led a team that built a working model of a Difference Engine, using contemporary materials, in time for Babbage's 1991 bicentenary. The meat of the book is comprised of the story of the first computing machine design as gathered from the technical notes and drawings curated by Swade. Though Babbage certainly had problems translating his ideas into brass, the reader also comes to understand his fruitless, drawn-out arguments with his funders. Swade had it comparatively easy, though his depictions of the frustrating search for money and then working out how best to build the enormous machine in the late 1980s are delightful.

It is difficult--maybe impossible--to draw a clear, unbroken line of influence from Babbage to any modern computer researchers, but his importance both as the first pioneer and as a symbol of the joys and sorrows of computing is unquestioned. Swade clearly respects his subject deeply, all the more so for having tried to bring the great old man's ideas to life. The Difference Engine is lovingly comprehensive and will thrill readers looking for a more technical examination of Babbage's career. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Englishman Charles Babbage (1791-1871), an eccentric, ingenious mathematician, decided that existing tables of computations included far too many errors: the day's textbooks came with errata sheets appended by more errata sheets. The inventive Babbage entered completely new territory in his struggle to design an automatic computing machine that could achieve an "absolute integrity of results," and in the 1820s he completed plans for the "Difference Engine." Swade (coauthor of The Dream Machine), an assistant director at the London Science Museum, offers an engaging biography of Babbage and his milieu (buttressed by 16 pages of b&w photos and illustrations). Babbage convinced the government to invest in his invention, but the technology of the day made it prohibitively expensive to complete the machine to his satisfaction. He went on to design the "Analytical Engine," a quicker, more advanced, more broadly applicable machine that could be programmed with punch cards to do computations and store data. Unfortunately, Babbage never got to build this second machine, either. His life was full of personal tragedy, political confrontations, the personal vendettas of colleagues and the frustration of being unable to build what he designed. In the 1980s, Swade gathered a team of experts and tried to make sense of Babbage's drawings and notes in a modern quest to construct what Babbage could not. Swade's able account of this gifted scientist, his cohorts and their curious endeavors enhances and broadens the growing body of literature on computer history. (Sept. 10)Forecast: The "technological frontier" parallels between Babbage's age and our own are becoming increasingly clear, and Swade's immersion in and love for Babbage's project comes through here (beyond some British reserve). Of all the books this season whose flap copy compares them to Longitude, this title has one of the best shots at a similar breakout.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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If your a geek like me you will like this book.
It almost has an apologetic tone and seems to be an answer to what, I assume, have been slights against Babbage and his work.
H. Van Slooten
The best part of the book is the very end in which Swade summarizes Babbage's contribution to computing.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Maureen Jacobs on September 15, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This book has 2 basic parts. First, is the discussion of Babbage's life and his computing engines. Second, is the author's modern-day story of attempting to complete Babbage's Difference Engine, a feat which Babbage himself was unable to do. I picked up this book for the first part. I wanted to learn about Babbage and how his engines worked. While the author gives a wonderful account of Babbage's life and methodology, he does not clearly describe HOW these engines function. I realize that the engines are extremely complex, but a chapter on the functioning of the Difference Engine trial piece and some diagrams on its operations would have been much appreciated. Unfortunately, as were Babbage's contemporaries, we are left mainly in dark as to how simply turning a crank can produce the necessary additions. The author also never fully explains the "method of finite differences" upon which the function of the difference engine is based.
The most amazing part of the book is the overview of Babbage's design for the Analytical Engine- the first programmable computer. It is amazingly similar in concept to today's modern computers, but it uses motion through metal gears and cams, instead of electricity through logic gates and wires. I expected to be bored by the modern-day story, but I actually was interested in the process of reconstructing this 19th century machine. It was enlightening to see how the same problems Babbage faced 150 years before troubled engineers today.
Overall, I recommend this book for those curious about Babbage and his engines. However, the writing seems jerky and unorganized in parts, and there is little technical description of the engines' functionality.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 10, 2001
Format: Hardcover
What if we had had computers a hundred and fifty years ago? It could have happened. The plans were drawn up for a computer that would have been very much like those of today, except it would have run on cogs, gears, levers, springs, and maybe steam power. We only got around to computers a hundred years later, but things could have worked out much differently, if the work of Charles Babbage had taken off. Doron Swade knows just how well such an engine could have worked. He built one. Or rather, his team within the London Science Museum built a calculating engine that Babbage had designed. It worked, just as Babbage knew it would. Swade tells the story of Babbage and his amazing machines in _The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer_ (Viking). Babbage's accomplishments turned out to be futile in the end, but Swade shows us how there is much to admire in his quest, successful or not.
Babbage wrote papers on chess, taxation, lock-picking, philosophy, submarines, archeology, cryptanalysis, and many other diverse efforts. He was an unstoppable inventor and tinkerer; he invented (but didn't get credit for) the ophthalmoscope every doctor has used, and the cowcatcher installed on the front of locomotives. But what he loved most of all were his computing machines. The Industrial Revolution was making everything else by steam; why not calculations, and perfect tables of them? He designed just such a calculating engine, and although because of various problems it didn't get built, he never stopped tinkering with it, and he designed an even bigger calculation machine that would have done, in its cogwheel way, all the basics that computers now do.
Babbage is sometimes called the grandfather of the computer, but he is more like an uncle.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Charles Hall on November 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ahhh, the fascinating story of Charles Babbage. For 100 years he was a footnote to mathematical history, for the next 40 years his story was a required paragraph in the preface of every Computer Science text book. In the last few decades there has finally been serious study of his work. Now with this book we have a highly readable compendium of his life and work, with the added excitement of a modern day adventure.
The first 210 pages provide the best description of Babbage's life yet. All the bits and pieces I've read in numbers of other books on Babbage are here, as told by a modern expert who puts it all in perspective. That perspective is essential, as Babbage's life was filled with controversy and conflict.
The last 100 pages of the book tell the story of building one of Babbage's planned-but-never-built calculating engines in the museum where the author works. It is this personal experience with building a working machine from the 150 year old plans that adds the magic "hands on" touch to the author's analysis of Babbage's tale.
This is a highly readable and fascinating book and undoubtedly the best single volume on the legacy of Charles Babbage.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By "wragl" on January 7, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This book is another in a growing and continuing series of biographies of influential but sometimes obscure historic figures who've made significant contributions to science and the arts. Sobel's "Longitude" and Winchester's "The Map That Changed the World" are similar efforts. I hope the list gets longer.
This is one of the best of the type. Babbage--the subject of the book--is not so obscure since his role in the development of the modern computer is popular science dogma.
In good lucid prose, Swade explains the visionary aspect of Babbage's mind and provides context and texture--social and historical--to make Babbage's story compelling and believable. There is no hero worship or hyperbole. Babbage's critics are given the same fair-minded handling as the book's central subject.
Woven into the biographical narrative, Swade deals with the complexities of building Babbage's First Difference Engine--a part of the book I found fascinating. We live in a world in which every screw, girder, plate and bolt is manufactured to internationl standards of size, shape and strength. Babbage undertook bulding his First Difference Engine using thousands of hand-made small parts during an era when there were absolutely no standards for any machinery.
Swade also deals gracefully with the role Lord Byron's daughter, Ada, played in Babbage's career. Her work consisted of an annotated translation from Italian of a report on Babbage's machine. Alas, she wasn't the avatar of modern analysis.
After the biography proper, Swade describes how--during the 1980s--the London Science Museum undertook building the first complete version of a Babbage Difference Engine.
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